Rhythm & Views

Ry Cooder

Lately, boomers like Ry Cooder have been making such powerful, politically engaged albums that I'm beginning to think I was born too late. Coldplay leaves me cold, but the fiery passion displayed in Cooder's last three efforts--from the sumptuous '50s-era Cuban guitar fantasia Mambo Sinuendo (2003) to the L.A.-based sonic archeology of Chavez Ravine (2005) to the new Dust Bowl-inspired travelogue My Name Is Budd --makes Gen X musicians sound like Gen Zzzz.

A combination of musicianship and songcraft carries Buddy. Cooder creates a cast of animal characters--Buddy Red Cat, Lefty Mouse, Reverend Tom Toad--to sing tales of the Great Depression.

"Suitcase in My Hand" sets the jaunty folk-music tone, establishing a theme of restless spirits eager to share folk wisdom, personal trials and workingman victories. From there, listeners journey through the political upheaval of the '30s told in miniature: the omnivorous threat of a pig in "J. Edgar," the retelling of Pete Seeger's confrontation with commie-hunting authorities in "Three Chords and the Truth," the North Country miners' successful union in "Strike!"

Cooder and his percussionist son Joachim provide the basic tracks, with music legends like Flaco Jiménez and Mike and Pete Seeger layering songs with a patina of rugged, road-worthy flourishes. Like Wynton Marsalis' recent album, Buddy is beautifully packaged: Fictional vignettes (written by Cooder) contextualize each song, in addition to illustrations by Vincent Valdez. Indeed, Buddy is an American music lover's best friend.